By the time he is 20, Brandon Ngai will have an MBA, a bachelor’s in engineering, and an NCAA championship under his belt.
A gymnast and native of Sacramento, California, Ngai is finishing his first year at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He is the youngest athlete ever to win an NCAA championship, in the pommel horse — and his coach says he has worked hard enough and is good enough to go on to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
But academics has always come first for Ngai, which is why he’s hanging up his grips to focus on his education — specifically the acquisition of an MBA.
“I was getting tired by the end of my senior year,” he says. “It wasn’t the gymnastics itself; I was just ready to move on to other things, whether that means a career or continuing my education.”
JUDGED NOT ON HIS AGE BUT ON THE QUALITY OF HIS WORK
Ngai is used to being the youngest person in the room. It doesn’t even faze him anymore.
“It definitely is a little weird, but it’s normal to me,” said Ngai, a first-year MBA student who is a three-time NCAA All-American, 2016 NCAA champion, and 2017 Big Ten champion. “When I was 14 years old, my junior year of high school, I took part-time classes at the community college with students who were 21-22 years old. It doesn’t take long before it becomes normal, and people view me based on the quality of my work and performance instead of my age.”
Early on, he learned the discipline and diligence that put him ahead of his peers. He credits his parents, Penny and Peter, dentists who share a practice in Sacramento, for guiding him and his two younger brothers in their activities.
Brandon’s mother, who was also a gymnast, started him on the pommel horse at age 4. “The idea was, it’s a great sport to start your kids out with because they get a lot of core strengthening and coordination,” he says. His parents drove him to daily practice, and regular competitions. “It was expensive and time consuming, but they were always willing to do it,” he says. “Even from a young age, they were always setting me up for my future.”
His parents also required their sons to do home study during the summers. He hated it at the time. But the extra work enabled him to skip two grades. He also took undergraduate college classes during high school.
THE RIGHT FIT
When Brandon graduated from high school at the ripe young age of 15, he looked for a college that combined his main interests, gymnastics and engineering. “Growing up, I loved to figure out how things worked,” he says. He liked large vehicles and woke up early to see the garbage trucks. Planes were a particular passion and he dreamed of becoming an aerospace engineer.
The University of Illinois offered both a well-regarded engineering program and a leading gymnastics team. University of Illinois has “one of the most-storied gymnastics programs,” says Associate Head Coach for Men’s Gymnastics Daniel Ribeiro, who recruited Brandon. “We’re third in the country out of 28 Big Ten titles.”
But in part because of his youth, Brandon got off to a rough start. “He had the talent, but he was competing against guys who were much older and physically more mature,” says Ribeiro. Ngai was disappointed that he didn’t make the lineup in his first year: “I remember looking at the NCAA scoreboard and thinking, ”Why can’t I be up there?”